Other People's Love Letters

Carys turns the car around, back towards Piper’s school.

Carys turns the car around, back towards Piper’s school. She’d forgotten her daughter was in the car, until Piper spoke up from the back. “Are you ok, Mama?”

“I’m fine, baby.” Carys wipes the tears from her cheeks. She hadn’t even realized she was crying.

Once, when Carys was in kindergarten, her father drove all the way to his office with her in the back seat. She had sat quietly the whole time, because he didn’t like to be distracted when he drove. As he pulled into the parking garage at his office building, excitement swelled in her chest when she realized he was bringing her to his office for the day. She remembers panic rising as he slammed the car door and walked across the garage, away from her, briefcase swinging by his side. Too scared to go after him, she banged a fist frantically on the window to get his attention, and he had turned around, frowning when he saw her blinking at him through the window.

“Why didn’t you say something?” he had snarled at her as he climbed back in the car.

He said nothing else the whole way to school, pulled the car into the parking lot and stared at her in the rearview mirror until she undid her seatbelt, pulled her backpack towards her and heaved the car door open. She did her best to close it behind her but it was heavy.

She hurried across the parking lot towards the school, heard father get out of the car, muttering “Jesus fucking Christ,” as he slammed the door. That night, he told the story at the dinner table like a joke. “She didn’t say a word!” He chuckled, turning her silence into family lore.

Now, Carys holds Piper’s hand as she walks her across the parking lot, dropping a kiss on her daughter’s head before sending her through the front doors. The school yard is empty because of their late arrival. Back in the car, she feels a strange mixture of relief that she can cry in peace now, and resistance to what lies ahead. She takes a shuddering breath and pulls the car out of the parking lot and back onto the road.

Carys pulls into the gravel driveway at her father’s house, her red Honda Civic small beside her father’s beloved Cadillac. My baby he’d called that car. The interior is spotless, as always. A stark contrast to the rest of the messes he’s left behind. Until last week, Carys hadn’t set foot in her father’s house since she’d aged out of the awkward twice-monthly weekend visits mandated in her parents’ divorce.

Carys was the good daughter. Her sister, Paula, refused to go to their father’s place. Carys was the one who had kept seeing him all the way through high school. The one who had tried and tried and tried to maintain a relationship with their father, grasping at the idea of family, as her sister pulled away and her mother died, even as the distance between them hissed like a pit of vipers, too dangerous to dare bridging.

Now, she holds the key that makes this place her problem, in her hand. She slips it into the front door lock, and steps inside, trying not to breathe too deeply. The first thing she does is open as many windows as she can. Some are stuck shut by a mysterious force—grime or paint. Others are impossible to reach because of all the stuff piled on the floor or pushed against the walls, the sheer volume of it pressing down on her chest so hard she can barely breathe. She begins in the kitchen, throwing rusty cans and empty wine bottles into industrial strength garbage bags until their sides bulge. In her real life, Carys is a staunch recycler. She buys whatever she can in bulk, bringing her own empty glass spaghetti sauce containers to the store, and carefully labelling the jars: rice, lentils, flour, as soon as she gets home. Here, she pulls everything out of the pantry and shoves it into bags. The whites of her nails become dark as she works, their undersides coated with filth.

After her father’s funeral, her uncle had found her washing her hands in the upstairs bathroom. The rest of her family members used the shovel the Rabbi offered to toss dirt onto her father’s wooden coffin, already lowered into the ground when they arrived. Unable to wait for her turn to bury him, Carys knelt in the soft dirt and picked up the sandy soil with her bare hands.

She remembered his sour breath as he whispered that her father was incapable of love. He thought he’d told her something she didn’t know.

At the grave site, her uncle had wept as he talked about what a wonderful brother her father had been. All Carys could think of was how once, after a few too many glasses of scotch on Passover, her uncle had cornered her and said that her father had always been lacking something. She remembered his sour breath as he whispered that her father was incapable of love. He thought he’d told her something she didn’t know.

“It was touching,” her uncle said, “Watching you at your father’s grave.”

She thanked him as she scrubbed her hands under scalding water for a second time, wondering if he regretted the truths he told about her father, or the lies. She wondered which was which.

Downstairs, Carys stood in the corner of the living room and sipped her third glass of red wine, everyone around her talking and talking with nothing to say. Her hands shook so much she spilled her drink, her aunt taking the glass from her hand and replacing it with a special cleaner, mouth pinched. Carys knelt on the creamy white carpet with a brush and a bowl of water, scrubbing and scrubbing and scrubbing, mourners floating above her as the stain faded beneath her hands.

Now, inside her father’s house, she moves a cracker box and discovers a pile of tiny bones, its body turned to dust, and she starts crying so hard she can barely breathe.

Her father’s death should have been a relief, a final release from striving to be someone he wanted to know. Instead, she finds herself waking up in the small hours of the night, trying to recall his smell, his profile in the glare of oncoming cars as he’d driven her to her mother’s house on Sunday nights, the feel of his beard against her cheek when they hugged goodbye. In these moments, Carys weeps as quietly as she can in the dark, so as not to wake her husband. Sam doesn’t know about this house, full to the brim with mould and mouse shit. In fact, he doesn’t even know her father is dead. Sam’s disdain for him has always been so heavy, Carys isn’t sure she can bear it alongside the weight of her own grief, so she tells herself she’ll take some time to mourn first.

She went to the funeral alone, the grave alone, the reading of the will alone. For so long, her father had been most present by his absence, a ghostly remnant like the stain on the carpet in her aunt’s living room. In leaving this house to her, he’s taking up more space in her life than he has in years. Discovering he’d been living here, like this, fills her with horror and makes the idea of telling Sam about everything even more difficult.

And so now, she is here alone, and it feels too late for things to be different. It also leaves her with the feeling that without meaning to, she’d somehow done something terribly, horribly wrong. The swirl of emotions is so familiar, it is almost a comfort.

Everything in the house is ruined by mould or mice or the smell of cigarettes and all that’s been left to rot for these many years. She wades down a hallway lined with mildewed cardboard boxes, some of them so damp they’ve collapsed in on themselves. At the end of the hall is a heavy wooden door, and she turns the knob. When she flicks the light switch, creatures skitter into dark spaces. This room is also lined with boxes, all of them so wrecked they are almost unrecognizable, melted like a Dali painting to lumps instead of cubes. But in the midst of them is her father’s old desk, the top clear of clutter, three pens lined up to the right of a yellow legal pad, just the way she remembers his office from when she was small.

She opens the windows, then each of the desk drawers, full of nothing but ruin. Empty yoghurt containers filled with sticky pennies. A whole drawerful of soft, crumpled receipts. Even the top of the desk, she can see now, is marred by water rings and cigarette burns. Carys slams the drawer shut, sound muffled, furious with herself for thinking she might find something worth saving here. But, then, inside the bottom drawer is a fat brown envelope. She eyes it suspiciously, picking it up and peeking inside. There are papers, folded. Cards. Photos. She takes the envelope outside, sitting on the steps in the midmorning sun.

One sheaf of papers is a story she’d written, so long ago she’d forgotten all about it. There are photos from her father’s childhood, faded and grainy, and soft-focus ones from when she and Paula were young. Her father blowing out the candle stuck in a cupcake topped with a lilting tower of pink icing. She and her sister in his lap, huge smiles on their faces. She doesn’t remember this at all.

These cards are the first evidence Carys has ever seen that her parents loved each other, once.

She opens the cards one by one. They’re from her mother, back when she and Carys’s father had first met. The words inside are tender, kind, sensual. These cards are the first evidence Carys has ever seen that her parents loved each other, once. My darling … one begins. I’m so grateful for you, says another. Reading them is uncomfortable and comforting all at once.

She and Sam have never written to each other like this, pen to paper. They type terse text messages. “Used last of milk.” “Can you pick up Piper?” “Forgot laundry in washer. Can you move to dryer.” No heartfelt missives like these.

At the bottom of the envelope is a small bundle of photos held together with an elastic band. Piper’s smiling face looks up at her. Her father has kept the school pictures Carys sent yearly, though he never acknowledged receiving them. At the back of the pile of photos is a book of matches. She stares at the stag head logo on the front. It is familiar, but she’s unable to place it until she flips the cover open and sees the date scrawled inside in her father’s precise hand. September 18. Her wedding anniversary. The match book is from the gastropub where she and Sam had held their reception. They hadn’t invited him. None of the matches have been used. Her heart curdles in her chest. She pulls out her phone and calls her sister.

“H’lo?” Carys knows Paula’s voice, even after all this time. “Paula. It’s Carys.”


Carys lets out a breath. “I have to tell you something … ” Paula says nothing. Carys holds the happy birthday photo, stares at her happy sister and says, “Dad’s dead.”


“He’s dead. He died a month ago.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?” Paula’s voice is sharp.

“We don’t talk.”

“We’re talking now.”

“I wasn’t sure you’d want to hear from me. I wasn’t sure you’d care.” Paula stays quiet, so Carys pivots, inelegantly. “Did you tell Dad where Sam and I were getting married? Where the party was?”

“What?” Paula sounds confused. “Why?”

“I just need to know.” She closes her eyes against the picture in front of her, remembers her sister unhappy at the wedding in the sage green maid of honour dress Carys had chosen for her. Unhappy beside her mother at Carys’s high school swim meets. Unhappy at the breakfast table before school as kids.

“I might have mentioned it. I never knew what I could and couldn’t say to him, and you know how he was, always asking questions, like he cared. Sorry.”

Paula doesn’t sound sorry at all.

“Are you happy?” Carys asks.

“You just told me that Dad’s dead. So, not right now. No.”

“But the rest of the time. Before this.”

Paula makes a sound that might be a laugh if Carys knew her better. “Not then, either.”

“Right.” Carys says. “I’ve got to go.”

If she could, she’d reach inside her ribcage and rip out the wanting.

“I really wish you’d called me sooner. What happened? Why … ” Paula is still speaking when Carys hangs up the phone.

She stands, tucking the envelope, fat and full, underneath her armpit, match book still in hand. If she could, she’d reach inside her ribcage and rip out the wanting. Instead, she walks around the house, lighting the matches two at a time and throwing them into the open windows.

When she’s made her way back around to the front, she’s startled by the honking of a car horn. Warily, she approaches her father’s Cadillac, now idling in the laneway. The driver’s side window jerks downward as someone inside cranks the handle. The jazz her father favoured plays on the car stereo.

“Did you think I forgot you?” Her father asks, his voice loud to be heard over the music. “I was just running late. Get in.” Carys walks around the car and climbs in, setting the brown envelope on her lap. He backs out of the driveway, his arm outstretched, hand behind the headrest of her seat as he looks over his shoulder.

Carys examines the hair growing from his ears. The dandruff on the shoulder of his navy blue sweater. The arms of his silver-framed glasses bowing outwards slightly from the pressure of his too big head. She reaches over and turns off the radio, and her father gives her a sharp look. “Didn’t think you’d want to talk,” he says. “You were always so quiet. Remember that time I drove all the way to work with you in the car?” He chuckles. “You didn’t make a peep.”

“I never knew what to say to you.”

“I’m your father, you can say whatever you want.” Like it has ever been that easy.

Carys shakes her head. “Your house–”

“What about my house?” Her father’s knuckles are white as he clutches the steering wheel.

“You could have asked for help.”

“I’m your parent, I don’t need your help.”

The envelope in Carys’s lap grows heavier. She folds her hands on top of it. “Were you happy? Living like that?”

“Living like what?” His voice is sharp, like Paula’s. “Something wrong with the way I live?”

“Alone,” Carys says. Then he’s reaching across the space between them, hand grasping at the envelope in her lap.

“I know what’s in there,” her father snarls. “It’s mine.” He’s driving too quickly now, eyes on her instead of the curving road ahead as they drift into the wrong lane. “I don’t need you or anyone else going through my stuff … ”

“Dad!” Carys reaches out a hand to steady the wheel and her father lunges, grabbing the envelope and tossing it out the open window, before putting his hands back at ten and two like nothing happened.

“You shouldn’t read other people’s love letters,” he says, turning into a parking lot.

“It’s the only thing you left behind that isn’t ruined!” Carys screams, voice ringing in the enclosed space of the empty Cadillac.

“Get out,” he says.

“You’re dead, dad,” Carys tells him. Her voice is hoarse from yelling. She never yells. “You can’t tell me what to do.”

He turns to her, brown eyes gone black like they do when he’s furious. “I said get the fuck out of my car, little girl.”

Inside Carys’s chest, the last of her own ruins crumble into an unnavigable mess. She scrambles out of the car, falling to the ground and scraping her filthy hands.

She stumbles through a doorway, landing in the fluorescent lit aisles of a Dollar Store. She heads to the cooler, pulling out a bottle of blue Gatorade, twisting the top open. The young salesperson who comes over to complain takes one look at her face and steps away. Carys tilts her head back and drains the bottle dry.

The Cadillac sits in the parking lot when Carys walks out of the store, bag in hand. She approaches warily, half expecting to find her father fuming while he waits for her, but the car is empty, keys dangling from the ignition.

She drives back to the house slowly, cars passing as she scans the side of the road for the envelope. Reading the letters between her parents had disquieted her. But they were also beautiful, a reminder that they’d been telling the truth when they swore up and down that they’d once been deeply in love. She wants them back.

Somewhere deep inside her, hope lurches, fierce and feral.

Carys somehow spots the envelope, slightly crumpled but otherwise fine, settled near a ditch, and pulls the car to a stop on the side of the road. Somewhere deep inside her, hope lurches, fierce and feral.

Her father’s house will still be standing when she gets back, no damage done by the matches. She will sit in her car and Google companies that deal with hoarding situations. She will call them. They will help.

But first, Carys pulls the envelope out of the tall, brown reeds, dry pods bursting open, milkweed seeds swirling to the sky. Unwilling to leave all those wishes wasted, Carys closes her eyes.

That night, she will leave the card she bought at the Dollar store on the counter beside the brown envelope.

Beloved Husband. I should have told you this sooner—my dad is dead. I’m really sad, Sam, sadder than I have any right to be. I hated him and I miss him so much. I’m afraid I’m just like him. I’m afraid everything is ruined, especially me, and for that, I’m sorry.

I love you.

I love you.

I love you.

About the author

Meg Max is a writer and mother living on the unceded land of the Algonquin Anishinaabe Nation. Her fiction has been published online and in print throughout Canada and the US, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is the founder of Writers in Bloom, a community centering the needs and stories of neurodiverse, mentally ill and chronically ill writers.